Exhuming Franco: How Different Is Spain Really?

Post date: 29/06/2021

Sebastiaan Faber, chair of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives and professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, introduces his new book on the legacy of Francoism in modern Spain. ‘Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Second Transition’ is published by Vanderbilt University Press (2021) and is available here.

Around the time of the Catalan referendum in 2017 some Spanish intellectuals complained that foreign correspondents were unfairly painting their country as ‘Francoland’. ‘A large part of educated public opinion in Europe and the Americas, including the academic and journalistic elites, prefer to hold on to a somber vision of Spain’, Antonio Muñoz Molina wrote in El País. ‘They lazily stick to the worst stereotypes, especially concerning the legacy of the dictatorship or our bullfight-like tendency to bloodshed and civil war’. Some of them, he added, ‘are so in love with the idea of a rebellious Spain fighting fascism that they refuse to accept that fascism ended many years ago. They’re so enthralled with our picturesque backwardness that they take offense when we explain everything in which we have changed these past 40 years’.

Yet the idea that Spain is still burdened by lingering Francoist legacies is not only held by foreign elites. ‘Our democracy is the result of an “adaptation maneuver” by the regime of General Franco when it was faced with the choice to either integrate into Europe or maintain itself in indefinite isolation’, wrote a reader reaction to a column by Rosa María Artal in around the time of Pedro Sánchez’s investiture as prime minister in early 2020, less than three weeks after Franco’s remains had been exhumed from the Valley of the Fallen. ‘Its master move’, the reader added, ‘was to force a Transition in which those who held power during the dictatorship remained in place, concealed under the cloak of a democratic society. … [A] couple of years later, during the successive majority governments of Felipe González, a golden opportunity was lost to turn this country inside out like a sock. … All the political problems that we suffer today derive from those two historical facts’. It was the highest rated comment to Artal’s column that day.

This will be no surprise to any observer of Spanish current affairs. The idea that every single one of Spain’s challenges today can be linked with a persistent Francoist legacy continues to hold great attraction, especially among the Left and the soberanistas in Catalonia and the Basque Country. But how useful is it to rely on the dictatorship as an explanatory paradigm in 2021, in a Spain that – let’s face it – looks very little like it did between 1939 and 1975? Does it make sense to continue to speak of ‘sociological Francoism’, the concept popularized by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán? If Francoism does still exist in some guise today, how exactly does it manifest in political life, in the news media, the judiciary, the universities, or the country’s economic structures? Also, is it really true that Spain is more burdened by its recent past than other countries?

These are some of the questions I try to address in my short book ‘Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Second Transition’. Or, rather, these are the questions I pose to some 35 journalists, historians, philosophers and activists, from Cristina Fallarás, Montse Armengou, and Guillem Martínez to Enric Juliana, Magda Bandera, and José Antonio Zarzalejos. And even though the bulk of my informants would identify as left leaning, their disagreements are significant.

Written for a non-specialist audience, the book brings up difficult, even uncomfortable questions. Some of my interlocutors point to the corruption of the monarchy, the reactionary profile of the judiciary, the lack of professional ethics in the news media, or the continuing influence of the Catholic Church as reasons to question whether Spanish democracy is quite as ‘consolidated’ as some politicians and intellectuals like to claim. Others suggest that if there still are attitudes and practices that we can associate with the Francoist period – ways of practicing politics or conceiving public institutions, ways of pursuing and exercising power – these are not necessarily limited to the political Right or the Castilian-speaking parts of the country, however much it’s often the Left and the Basque and Catalan independence movements that like to paint Spain as ‘Francoland’. Yet others emphasize that Francoism itself had a long genealogy, with roots reaching deep into the nineteenth century, if not further. Nor do my interlocutors agree on the recent rise of the radical right. For some, Vox is a deeply Spanish phenomenon – castizo, Catholic, (neo-)Francoist – while others argue that Abascal’s party has much more in common with other populist right-wing movements (in France, Germany, Brazil, or the United States) than with any particularly Spanish tradition. And even if it’s true that Spain’s democracy needs work, some of my interlocutors question the solutions proposed by domestic activists or international bodies, whether it’s a Truth Commission, constitutional reform, a second transition, or something as simple as a museum of the Civil War and Francoism.

In the final chapter, I wonder whether Spaniards have tended to exaggerate the exceptionality of their own country. To be sure, self-critical comparisons with other nations can be quite effective: ‘In the Netherlands, a university president caught plagiarizing would have resigned right away; in Spain, no one every resigns’; ‘Can you imagine a national Germany monument holding Hitler’s grave?’; statements like these have been common in the Spanish public sphere, especially since the rise of the memory movement, around 2000, and the 15-M or indignados eleven years later. Yet in practice these examples are often based on a superficial, if not idealized, image of northern European countries, many of which face plenty of challenges of their own. And when it comes to determining what to do with a complicated, conflicted, or violent past, Spain is far from alone in the world.


Posted on 29 June 2021.

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